Choosing Suffering

A sermon preached in an ongoing series on the Apostles’ Creed.

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As we read through the Gospel narratives, something we notice is that the news of Jesus spreads far and wide – wherever he goes, it seems, the news of his identity and actions has preceded him. As the news of Jesus’ authoritative teaching and of his miracles spreads throughout the region, people seek him out. There are a number of times when the gospel writers recall how crowds of people sought Jesus out – how crowds of people wanted to be close to him. Here is something new and different. This is something I want to see. This is something I’m going to tell other people about.

 

As we come to our New Testament Lesson this morning from the gospel of John, we again catch a glimpse of this. It was the time of the Passover Festival and many were making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And among those going up to the city were a group of Greeks – Greeks, those who do not belong to the Hebrew people by birth. Greeks, who represent the nations of the world outside of Israel. Whoever they are exactly, and wherever they could be from, it is apparent that these Greeks have heard about Jesus and they want to meet the man.

 

Thus we read: “Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’.” They have noticed that Philip is among those who belong to Jesus’ inner circle – he is an insider who might be able to get them backstage passes to the main event. They want to see Jesus.

 

 

In one of his sermons on this passage of scripture, the late James Montgomery Boice, former minister of 10th Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, reflected on the various pulpits in which he preached in his many travels. He pointed out that the front of a pulpit is often very ornate and beautiful. The pulpit in which I stand this morning is such a pulpit. But Boice also pointed out that pulpits are often much less glamorous on preacher’s side. Often there are wires down by your feet you could easily trip on, perhaps a frayed piece of carpet, perhaps stacks of books. In one pulpit he saw a sign that read ‘When the light comes on you have two minutes!” But there was one particular pulpit he enjoyed preaching from because of a sign pasted inside. It read; “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Boice thought this a particularly apt word for anyone who would teach or preach from the scriptures – the preacher or teacher is called to point to Jesus – he or she should in some sense get out of the way, so that the congregation would see Jesus. Sir, we want to see Jesus.

 

Coming back to the narrative, what is Jesus’ reaction to this request? Well, when Philip and Andrew come to Jesus, he first declares: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. On the face of it you might think – ah, finally Jesus is receiving the honour and glory that are due him – he is going to be glorified. Finally, representatives of the nations of the earth come to him. Finally, the nations come asking concerning this one who is God with us. That Jesus would receive glory in this way is entirely in keeping with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which has just taken place in the story of his life.

 

In our culture the logic of marketing is more than familiar to all of us – so pervasive is consumerism, we almost get the logic of marketing with our mother’s milk. For anyone who is in sales, for anyone who is in marketing, Jesus has perhaps reached that tipping point, that moment when finally he’s got a wider audience – a bigger market. Almost every corporation today, whether large or small, is trying to expand its market share – whether reaching further into a local market or into a vast market like China. Increasing your market share, increasing the visibility of your product – that’s what it’s all about.

 

John 12:20    Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip and said “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Ah, a new audience, a worldwide audience for his teaching… The glory he deserves. Jesus replied: “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.” Glory. Finally he will get his glory.

 

But of course, most of you have been reading your bible long enough, and coming to church long enough, to know that something is a little off here. In fact, the narrative seems to make clear that Jesus never actually meets with these Greeks – not much of a salesman, is he? Loses a brilliant opportunity to sell the product… In some sense, then, we discover that in this moment, he isn’t interested in expanding his market share. He’s not looking for more disciples, not looking for an expansion of his earthly corporation. But, why not? What does he have in mind?

 

What we have to do is look a little more closely at those words Jesus offers in reply. He says: “The hour has come.”  The hour has come.

What we notice is that Jesus is here using a euphemism. It’s a way of saying something, something difficult, without actually saying what you mean. It’s a way of speaking evasively. We all do this kind of thing, speaking evasively. We might do it with our kids for example – perhaps you spell things out so they don’t know what you are saying. Becky should we take the kids to the P – A – R – K?  Of course that worked until Tabea learned to read and spell. We also used to speak in French if there was something we didn’t want the kids to know. Again, that worked until Tabea started learning French. I think now we’re going to have to start taking Russian lessons so we can communicate with each other over their heads.

 

In any case, Jesus is using a figure of speech – a euphemism – when he says ‘the hour has come’. He’s alluding to what is going to happen. He is being indirect. He is being coy. What does it mean that his hour has come?

 

Jesus continues: “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Well, that clears it all up, doesn’t it?

 

Jesus goes from one kind of vagueness to another kind of vagueness. But there is an important word in his comment about the seed – a decisively non-euphemistic word. No beating around the bush here. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it cannot bear much fruit.

 

Think of a seed – perhaps of a tomato seed. If you want to have more tomatoes from that small, dry, single Tomato seed, what must you do? You bury the seed. You plant it in the soil. And if the temperature of the soil is warm enough, and if there is sufficient moisture in the soil, that seed will split open – and from the seed a root will push down into the soil, and from the seed a shoot will rise up out of the soil into the air and into the sunshine. If you want to have more tomatoes from that little seed, you must bury it. It must split open. It must, as Jesus puts it, die. And once it has died, there comes the possibility of a harvest of new fresh tomatoes.

 

When Jesus speaks euphemistically of ‘the hour’ (when he says ‘the hour’ has come) – he speaks of the fact that he will die. He speaks of the fact that he must die. Like the seed that would bear much fruit, he must come to nothing, must be buried, must die.

 

While Jesus approaches the question of his death with a kind of playfulness of speech, he is not playful when it comes to death itself. He faces his death with a deep awareness of what it means to suffer, of what it means to die. In verse 27, he says, “Now my soul is troubled . And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name’.” Now is not the time for earthly glory, for an earthly extension of his kingdom – it is a time to face the cross.

 

Last week, in reflecting on the words of the Creed ‘he suffered under Pontius Pilate’, we spoke about our lives. We spoke about the suffering that inevitably befalls us in this life – grief over the loss of loved ones, anxiety and depression, loneliness, pain. We spoke about the fact that God knows what it is to suffer – that in Jesus Christ God has walked the path of suffering. To this God we can reach out in confidence and friendship, in prayer.

 

This week we remain with those words of the Creed – he suffered under Pontius Pilate – but doing so we speak not about a suffering that befalls us. Not about a suffering that comes to us against our will. Rather, we speak about another kind of suffering – in effect, a suffering that is chosen – a difficult path that is chosen.  As Jesus says in the tenth chapter of John’s gospel: “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” He chooses the path of love and suffering service.

 

The hour of which Jesus speaks, is the hour in which he freely lays down his life – it is the hour in which he freely becomes the seed that is planted in the soil, that splits open, and thereby becomes the basis of new life for the whole world – for Jew and Greek, Jew and non-Jew alike. It is a profound mystery, but in giving up his life, in willingly suffering, Jesus in some sense bears our death, our grief, our pain. And having done so he raises us to resurrection life.

 

He chooses suffering and death out of love for us. God chooses suffering for godself. Why? Out of love for us,

            So that we might be raised to new life.

So that we might be made whole – free from guilt and shame and fear and pain.

So that we might be set free to love God, to embrace God, to serve God.

So that we might truly love and serve our neighbour.

 

As Jesus says in John chapter 10 also, he came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

 

Jesus chose suffering and death, not simply to rebalance some cosmic scale of justice or simply to appease the wrath of God, but to heal all the wrong-headedness of our lives and all the wrong-headedness of our world. And we taste that healing, and experience that healing, in relation to Christ. The healing Christ brings defines our lives, defines our world, and determines its future.

 

And here the rubber hits the road, here things get real in terms of the Christian life. Having spoken about the seed that dies, and which subsequently bears fruit, Jesus adds these words: “Those who love their life, lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

 

Jesus chose the path of love, of suffering service. And Jesus points out that when we walk with him, our path will also inevitably involve a choice for suffering. Not only does suffering befall us in the world – but in another sense we choose suffering. When Jesus say that we must hate our life in this world in order to gain eternal life, he is saying that there should be nothing in this world that would hold us back from following his way.

Suddenly, the thought that Christianity is about going to church on Sunday and saying our daily prayers seems so limited. Suddenly the thought that we can go about our business during the week and then pay some attention to God on Sunday morning just seems to totally miss the mark.

 

Jesus said: Where I am, there will my servant be, also.

 

And where is Jesus? Where is Jesus?

 

He is walking in the way of love – of goodness and service. He is offering himself for the sake of others. Where is Jesus?

Jesus is loving your difficult next door neighbour.

Jesus is embracing the friend who betrayed you so many years ago.

Jesus is comforting displaced persons living in the squalor of refugee camps.

Jesus is afflicting the complacently wealthy.

Jesus is challenging the self-righteousness of comfortable Canadians.

Jesus said: “Where I am, there will my servant be, also.”

 

To be with Jesus, is often to be in a place we wouldn’t first choose to be in. To be with Jesus is often to find ourselves completing tasks that don’t come naturally to us. To be with Jesus is often to find ourselves with people we wouldn’t first choose to be with. To be with Jesus is in some sense to risk our pride, our comfort, our honour, our image. To be with Jesus might even mean to risk our safety or our lives for the sake of love.

But let’s be clear. If we are to follow in this way – if we are to be with Jesus where he is – it will not be because there is some God standing over us saying “You better…” The invitation to be with Jesus, and to be where he is, is an invitation to fullness of life. It is an invitation to a truly human life.

 

Those who love their life, those who look out for themselves and who are preoccupied with their own identity and feelings and wellbeing – are living a less than human life.

 

On the other hand, those who are with Jesus – those who walk in company with him – those lose their life for his sake – those who trust him and his way of humble service and love – they are on the way to being fully human. To be where Jesus is, is to be fully alive, fully human.

 

Jesus said: “Whoever serves me must follow me. Where I am, there will my servant be also.”

 

As you think about your life and circumstances, about what’s going on in the world immediately around you, ask yourself the question: Where is Jesus?

 

And then ask yourself: “Am I with him.”

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